The anticipated visit to Israel and the region by President Barack Obama is causing a buzz and curiosity in Israel. Everything from what is on the menu of his state dinners to his meeting the new Miss Israel is being covered in details.It was, therefore, natural that it should have its prominent place at the 13th Annual Herzlia Conference, under the auspices of IDC Herzlia at the Dan Accadiah Hotel. The Opening Panel on Day 3 was entitled “Ahead of President Obama’s visit to Israel: US-Israel relations – Quo Vadis?” with US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, taking center stage. In a nutshell, he described the purpose of his visit is to restate the strong bond between the US and Israel. It was, he said, an opportunity for the two leaders to engage in the significant challenges facing us. In a sense it is a continuation of a partnership, a good example being last September when Hamas escalated its rocket attack against Israel and Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense. The US stated Israel’s right to self-defense and this did a lot to shape international perceptions. Also,there was a coordination of diplomatic efforts to reduce and end the violence, including US influence with Egypt, and calls between Obama and Morsi. This conflict was highlighted by the success of the Iron Dome US-Israel security policy. Shapiro talked of Iran. He said we have a number of important and shared principles including intelligence gathering, a common understanding of the threat, and the inherent risk of a nuclear arms race, and shared goals, namely prevention of a nuclear Iran and not containment.
I have to report that during the coffee break networking chats I heard the opinion that one of the major purposes of Obama’s visit with PM Netanyahu was to prevent Israel from striking Iran. More on this later.
Dore Gold looked back on the initial meeting between Obama and Bibi. He said the body language between the two men then was positive. He said that, in 2009, the concept was, listening to diplomatic talk, that we were a hair’s breath away from a solution to the Palestinian crisis. “We all knew what it would look like, but how do we get there?” was the talk at the time. Since then the Middle East reality has changed. Things did happen. Bibi gave Abbas what he wanted, according to what Abbas wrote in the New York Times. He agreed to recognize the need for a Two-State solution and he agreed to a settlement freeze. Yet negotiations did not begin. Today, it required taking a step back and reassessing the Middle East is not the Middle East we knew. Israel’s security component is more critical today than it was then. “It is important for Obama to come and speak with the Israeli people. Because President Clinton came over in personal terms to Israelis they accepted his difficult doctrine and parameters. With regard to a nuclear Iran he needs to state prevention and not containment. The narrowing of the gaps between Israel and the US gives us a chance to build on our relationship with America.”
Former Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, said that the President’s visit was a great opportunity for Obama to make a new perception. His 2009 perception was not helpful to us nor the Palestinians. In retrospect, his perception of the conflict and the Arab world was not helpful. The gesture he made was not reciprocated by the Arab world, neither was it perceived well by the Israeli public. It cut both ways. It wasn’t helped by the Palestinians making all the wrong moves. “It is important for the president to stress that the alliance with Israel is strong as we move from the past to the future.” On Iran, Ayalon said that they should be told that time is up. The two leaders should make Iran aware of our commonality of purpose – not containment, but prevention. The “Red Line” criteria is enriched uranium. This is the most reliable way to check what is happening. Ayalon suggested that the Arab League should be brought in to help solve the Syrian crisis post-Assad. They should provide peace-keeping troops. They should take responsibility as a relevant player. Regarding the Palestinians Ayalon said, “I was against their provocative breach of agreements with their unilateral move at the UN. Gestures should be reciprocal. For Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state, the Palestinians should recognize Israel as the Jewish state.”
Brian Katulis is a leading national security analyst in Washington DC. He said of the turmoil in the region, “I don’t call it the Arab Spring or the Islamic Winter. I call it the Middles East Transition.” About Obama’s trip to the region he said “By travelling to Ramallah, Obama announces that the Palestinian Authority is the only game in town for the Palestinians”, meaning that is sidelines Hamas in Gaza. “We will hear frank talk, that the Palestinian UN move was unhelpful and that America does not accept the legitimacy of settlement activity. The US will have Israel’s back on security and in international forums.” He suggested that think tanks can do more to find common ground on threat perceptions in the region and how to deal with them.
Dov Zakheim served as senior foreign policy adviser to George W.Bush. he said that Obama needs to show thar America is not withdrawing from the world. “I was in Kurdistan, the Gulf, Europe, and now here. This is the perception. We’re withdrawing from Afghanistan. We withdrew from Iraq. Our number one priority is preventing an attack on Israel. It cannot be a reaction to an attack. It must be prevention.” Relating to the perception of America “leading from behind” he said “If it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog, we are still the dog.”
In the session on “The Proliferation of Terror and Jihad” Wolfgang Ischinger, the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, expressed his admiration for Israel. “If what has happened to you happened to us in my country the population would clog the autobahns as they try to run away. It is not self-evident to Europeans that what happens in the Middle East impacts our citizens. For us, it is a learning process. What is going on in Syria reminds me, in a terrible way, of Bosnia. There, we got our act together very late. We saw it is difficult to put ethnic and religious groups together post-conflict. Intervention is not an easy thing. What needs to happen is a more open discussion. We could end up with no good friends in Syria post-Assad and therefore no influence.”
Jane Harman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said that America had decapitated the Al-Qaida leadership and we now have loose franchises of terror that, in many ways, is more dangerous than a centralized terror organization. “Tactically we have made progress,” she said, “but strategically we have not.” She quoted General McCrystal who, as we approach Passover, asked 4 questions. “Where is the enemy? Who is the enemy” What is the enemy trying to do? Why is he trying to do it?” To get to the core she asked “Is a kid in Gaza going to strap on an explosive belt, or join society? Understanding that question leads us to understand the strategy to prevent terror. ‘The GateKeepers’ is a controversial movie but it’s message is what is our strategy in fighting terror.”
Ex-CIA chief, James Wolsey, told of a visit by leading Muslims when he worked at Freedom House. They stressed the importance of religious liberty in America but complained about Saudi Arabia providing new literature for their mosques which was troubling to them. The material told of the methods kill a homosexual. They could throw him off a high place, the higher the better to prolong the agony of the fall. They could stone him to death but that large stones should be used to make his death more painful, or they could burn him alive. This is, he said, the Wahhabi form of Islam. Saudi Arabia owns 90% of the mosques and the madrassahs. Wolsey demonstrated that the average American family says $4500 annually for oil for their vehicles. It goes into the pockets of the Saudis. “We are trapped,” he said. “We are not addicted to oil, but our vehicles are. OPEC has 75% of our oil. The Saudi royal family told CNN that it costs them $2 to produce oil that they sell for $100. We are paying for what happens in the Middle East, including teaching them how to kill homosexuals, and terror. I suggest you take the Wolsey Test. Next time you drive into the gas station to fill your tank adjust the rearview mirror a little until you see the face of the driver and then ask yourself who is paying for this funding of terror. The answer is, you are looking at him. All twenty two counties that give us our oil are dictatorships. The solution to the funding of terror is we have to bankrupt them. Today, we have a choice. Either gasoline or ethanol. Ethanol is a lot cheaper than gasoline. Natural gas is one fifth the price of oil. We should devise a fuel, methanol or diesel, from natural gas. In Brazil you can choose between gasoline or ethanol when you go fill your tank. We need to be as smart as the Brazilians. We have to take the decision to convert vehicles. It costs $100 to convert a car. We can do it with current technology but the core of the problem is it is way out of the American comfort zone.” We do not yet understand that we are in the midst of World War 3. It has no familiarity with the two previous wars. It’s about religion. It’s a war within a religfion that spills over to other religions and even to non-religionists. It is no good hiding behind liberal secularism. It’s not going to protect you. (author).
Wolsey explained, “We have to get leverage over their behavior. We need to bankrupt them.”
Boaz Ganor, Director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC, said, “The West, America, two years ago, referred to the turmoil in the Middle East in a very naïve way. They said ‘You need to give this process a chance.’ Who is dictating this change? It’s the radical Islamists. The West said that Al-Qaida was losing its way in trying to impose a global Caliphate under Shariah Law, but what are we seeing here. It is precisely this agenda. We are seeing the breakdown of traditional counties leaving the door open to radicals. We see this in Libya, we are seeing it in Syria. Some say that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t call for terror, but their ideology echoes radical Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood ideology will give birth to a hybrid terror. Although an overall war with Arab nations is less likely our neighborhood is infinitely more dangerous. It is an environment that could lead to an eruption. My advise is not to interfere in the process. If you think that supporting the Syrian rebels is a good thing, remember what happened with the support of the mujahidin in Afghanistan. Stick to your principles of democracy, human rights, and don’t meddle in the turmoil.”
One soundbite that came out of this panel was “If a few years ago we stood on the edge of a cliff we are now taking a giant step forward.”
There was a wide spectrum of thought in the session “Iran and the Red Line: Time for Sword or Time for Diplomacy.” The views of the overseas panelists were contradictory. One expert showed in a PowerPoint presentation how both American and Israeli red lines on Iran’s nuclear program have shifted and changed in the last decade. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute said that the Iranians have crossed all the previous red lines with impunity. They also see the North Korean example of ignoring warnings, red lines, and sanctions. One speaker, a former US Deputy Secretary of Defense told us that John Kerry recently said that President Obama’s policy was a prevention of a nuclear Iran at all costs and that US presidents don’t bluff. All this confused talk caused Uzi Arab, a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister to say that, after all the conflicting statements about American policy on Iran, the Israeli Prime Minister must ask President Obama to clearly and unequivocally outline American official policy on Iran. “Red lines,” he said, “are a self-inflicted point. When you say that if Iran crosses those lines that we will take action you had better live up to your declaration. If they see that you don’t step up to the plate why should they take you seriously? It is an unstable position to allow them to close on the targeted red line.” In answer to a question about the desirability to enter into a pre-emptive war with Iran Arad answered, America, in the past, has entered into wars for reasons of ‘regime change’, ‘to win hearts and minds,” and to fight terror. With Iran the option is surgical, not political, social, and is therefore a more modest aim than wars undertaken in the recent past.”
Barry Shaw,The View from Israel.